Work as Worship
Midday in Mumbai: teeming traffic besieges the city, lines of cars creep forward at a snail’s pace, people walk in the road, buses swerve into their bays for a split second, rickshaws and taxis veer into every tiny space, while placid cows browse amongst all kinds of garbage. Hooting horns and chaos. Lunchtime is coming up for most civil servants, office workers, and school children. Nearly two hundred thousand people are waiting for their dabbawalas, who arrive promptly with the tiffins they have to deliver. Dabbas make a long trip every day to reach the people expecting them: a journey through the winding streets of this metropolis, with its twenty million or so inhabitants, and a solid history that goes back almost one hundred and thirty years.
These are the opening lines of Chapter 1 of Feeding the City, Sara Roncaglia’s study of the fascinating inner workings of the dabbawalas. Giving employment and status to thousands of largely illiterate villagers from Mumbai’s hinterland the dabbawala co-operative has been in operation since the late nineteenth century. It provides one of the most efficient delivery networks in the world: only one lunch in six million goes astray.
In Feeding the City Sara explains how the dabbawalas cater to a diverse and increasingly global city, where the preparation and consumption of food is pervaded with religious and cultural significance. The dabbawalasview their work as worship:
They may be old or great, rich or poor, but they’re all human beings. We have compassion for all human beings, we regard them with love. We distribute food to everyone we meet. We must help everyone. We protect our neighbours. If you have much, then give to the poor. God also gave life to the poor. Do not set them aside. God will give them something good. Everyone has feelings in their minds. Everyone should earn together and share. Eat together, putting things together, living together.
— Raghunath Medge, President of the dabbawala association Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust
Developing the idea of “gastrosemantics” – a language with which to discuss the broader implications of cooking and eating – Roncaglia helps us to rethink our relationship to food at a local and global level.
The dabbawalas have been a Harvard Business School Six Sigma success Case since 2009, and yet as far as we can tell there is no other book devoted to this cooperative example that would be available outside academic libraries or, indeed, freely available to those who might most benefit from understanding the multi-faith and inter-cultural uniqueness of this long-standing Mumbai enterprise. As Roncaglia makes clear, the Dabbawalas are not only an example of effective logistics but of ethnic and class cooperation.
Feeding the City was originally published in Italian. In India, the number of speakers of English is second only to Hindi. With the English open access version of Feeding the City we can ensure that as many of those 125 million people as possible can read about the Mumbai dabbawalas.